Obama’s Peace Prize Speech, Neihbur’s "Moral Realism" and the Catholic Just War Tradition

Diverse reactions to President Obama’s Nobel Peace Price Speech (full text):

  • Fr. James V. Schall praised it:

    As far as I can tell, nothing in President Obama’s background or politics prepared us for the remarkably sane address that he delivered in Oslo. He previously went around the world apologizing for everything the Americans ever did, only to turn around and say it was absolutely necessary.

  • George Weigel believes “Obama’s Oslo speech presumes too much about a centuries-old intellectual tradition”:

    In November, the president of the United States ordered a surge of U.S. forces into Afghanistan and called on other countries to do their duty in bringing that war to a successful conclusion. A few weeks later, the same president traveled to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The notion that the juxtaposition of these two events involves a “contradiction” (as the Washington Post subhead put it, and as the president’s speech tacitly acknowledged) is, in fact, a neat illustration of just how badly the just-war way of thinking has deteriorated in our culture, and just how attenuated the idea of the pursuit of peace has become.

  • Responding to Weigel, Kenneth Anderson (Volokh Conspiracy) The tradition most at work in the speech is ‘Niebuhrian realism'”:

    .. .It is a form of moral realism that has elements of just war ethics but also a much stronger sense of traditional realism — the “world as it is” of the speech — and which run against just war ethics as functional pacifism. There are tensions between this moderate moral realism and stricter versions of just war ethics, however, depending on the elements of each that one might emphasize.

    However, perhaps more important is that although to American ears, the just war tradition and its requirements seem, today, quite ordinary and natural, it is both a relatively new way of speaking about war in the American political tradition; also one that to European intellectuals and its international elites strange if not disturbing in the age of the UN Charter; and finally one that is not embraced directly by the Vatican. …

    I am not a Catholic or Catholic theologian, but in following Vatican statements concerning the use of force, I have long been struck that the Vatican does not follow just war ethics as even the formal apparatus of analysis. Summarizing roughly, it seems to follow more closely the European line about the primacy of international law, or anyway a certain, thoroughly unrealistic, but literal, reading of the Charter. I have sometimes wondered if the Vatican’s refusal even to speak the formal language of just war ethics — the five or seven standard criteria — was not intended as a very long term message that, although Americans associate just war ethics with Catholicism, it is not the law of the Church, but only one tradition within it concerning the use of force. I believe Weigel would concur in the observation that the Vatican has abstained from signing onto just war ethics as the formal apparatus for analyzing resort to war.

    (Very true!)

  • Lastly, the editors of the Jesuit weekly America on Obama’s use of the language of his “favorite philosopher” may work against him:

    In a campaign interview last year with the columnist David Brooks, Barack Obama identified Reinhold Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher. Following the president’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 15, many commentators noted that the speech reflected Niebuhr’s Christian Realism, a political theology that stressed the inescapable power of group egoism, especially in nation states, and the need of countervailing power to check injustice in the world. Niebuhr’s major works, Moral Man And Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics and The Nature and Destiny of Man, were sustained arguments for realism in politics and international affairs. But he equally insisted that nations were given to self-deception about their role in the world and employed myths and rationalizations to justify their self-interest.

    Indeed, another Niebuhr book, The Irony of American History, offered criticism of the self-deceptions, moral confusions and rationalizations of American foreign policy. … [more]

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2 thoughts on “Obama’s Peace Prize Speech, Neihbur’s "Moral Realism" and the Catholic Just War Tradition

  1. On theology of "Just War".The very most pathetic theologies of both Augustine and Aquinas. Come to think of this, they stand in contrast to their ardent efforts to express theology of life in Christ. Here instead, we find a life in something other than Christ. Something ALWAYS a grotesque departure from His Word.This has been a true shame in their works and all further utterances and explanations of this "theology" in that one SHOULD expect more from such great men, but are unfortunately or perhaps fortunately disappointed to discover that they are mere men rather than gods or angels. In that, they are prone to disastrous mistakes, and yet may remain great men in their contributions of their works as a whole. Why: Augustine developed his theory in response to the political entities that wished to be recognized as Christian rather than pagan and regions that found themselves literally under siege during multiple invasions–his theory is one of reactionary necessity while the culture about him collapsed under the many weights of invasion, waste, and dereliction. Aquinas reacted to political pressures from within the Roman church that would have permanently marginalized him or worse (regardless of his fidelity). These pressures demanded that he support, to the hilt, the authority of the papacy rather than the life of Christ in the church and thus in all of its peoples. This was a time of great tribulation and confusion in whom stood in authority to whom while at the same time invasions continued to threaten the Christian world.

  2. Cont.–What this comes down to is the church's life rather being imposed, to use the term for argument's sake, upon the life of the state–an entity that can never be equal in life to that of the church though intents and efforts may act on behalf of the Christian faith due only to the fact that there are Christians holding positions of influence among the positions of power of the state. It is a false choice. There is no such endeavor as "just war". There is only war. The church never has had any legitimate say in such circumstances other than to condemn its being and certainly pray for those caught in it. War is simply the hell of the chaos being wholly other than Christ's Word and life to His people.It is entirely true that Christians have been dragged into wars on this earth. As has been made public ad nauseum, the crusades tested the faith of men while also crushing the kingdoms and principalities of Europe–all in the name of the Lord, thus putting Him to the test while also bringing in great financial bounty to Rome while also not so coincidentally smashing its opposition in Constantinople. One of the very earliest "just wars" was in Rome's support of Poland against the Teutonic knights in the Baltic (ca. 1400s)–a situation that I might add is far from resolved to this day and remains one of the earliest Christian vs. Christian wars whereby the Roman church not only chose sides but additionally stabbed its formerly most stalwart ally in the North–for expediency's sake–but it failed in the long run in terms of Roman church political ambitions and worse, stood in opposition to unite the church catholic rather than drive divisions in amongst its believers, and directly led to being a sturdy point of opposition to Rome that developed the Protestant revolutions into very real further dissolution of Christian focus from Rome to other sources, chiefly the adoption of Lutheran theology. Horrid as wars are they appear to remain unbiased in their sense of destruction to both pagan and Christian alike. They are the equal-opportunity killers as much as any disease or natural calamity. They are embodiments of humanity's divide from the Lord, its sin, rather than its unity, its life in Christ. They are however, very unlike the natural disasters of the world in that political leaders, military leaders, and civil leaders DO certainly have say in how their plight might take shape. In this sense, along with the obvious sense that individuals experience hellish developments, war is all the more horrid. War is a very personal occurrence where people make choices of the highest order for which they must either live or die under while the Lord's name is called for on behalf of states, nations, family crests, and individuals in the midst of its chaos.

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